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Stretched to breaking point

india Updated: Jan 06, 2012 23:18 IST

Hindustan Times
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As if handling one billion people were not enough of a task, the Indian government is increasingly tasked with being protector, adviser, banker and even therapist for the roughly 20 million-strong Indian diaspora. Whether it is Indian merchants caught in a violent commercial dispute in the Chinese hinterland or Indian students being assaulted or worse in almost any part of the world, there is an assumption at home that it is New Delhi’s duty to ensure justice is done, that funeral rites are handled and that, where local authorities are found to be falling short, protection be provided. This should not come as a surprise. Helping citizens who are in need overseas is the sort of consular service all nations provide their people. Combined with the ever-increasing size of the Indian diaspora, the growth of the media and a sense among the public that they are a nation of some international clout, such demands can be expected to increase.

However, a touch of realism and pragmatism is also required about such protection. Overseas Indians are not all saints. There will be the odd fraud and criminal in their ranks who should not expect they can escape punishment simply because they hold an Indian passport. There are also limits to what the two already overstretched Indian ministries who deal with the diaspora regularly can do in terms of assistance. They should not be expected to provide dole to Indians who happen to be poor in a foreign country. They should not have to involve themselves in marital and family problems. They cannot treat every attack on an Indian as racially-motivated or denounce every overseas government for supposed failures. Yet these are the sort of demands often made by family members and an unthinking domestic media.

Nonetheless, Indian officialdom has responded with innovative solutions. The Persian Gulf is home to the largest single Indian diaspora but is also a region of poorly developed governance institutions. Faced with an unusual variety of diaspora problems, the ministry for overseas Indians has raised special community funds and, working through local social welfare groups, provides for everything from marriage counseling to medical evacuation for Gulf Indians. This is a public-private partnership that should be proactively adapted to the large overseas Indian student and migrant worker populations in other parts of the world, including the West. The recent case of Indian children being forcibly taken by Norwegian authorities indicates that cross-cultural understanding is another facet to this problem. Of course, the sometimes hysterical response in India to close encounters of the diasporic kind, sometimes to the long-term detriment of Indian migrants, indicates that an education process is needed here as well.